December is often a season of traveling. Whether that’s a holiday, a family vacation, or a trip home, there can be a lot to consider when someone in your travel party is neurodivergent. Here are tips to think about.
Pre-Planning and Preparation:
Perhaps you’re a neurotypical person who relishes the idea of making a spontaneous trip without a plan or itinerary. However, if you’re the parent of a child with autism or ADHD or your travel partner is neurodivergent, you may want to think again. Individuals with neurodiversities need planning and preparation!
The trip needs to be well planned out ahead of time, giving the person or child with neurodiversities time to process and adjust to a change in their daily routines. You may want to consider using visuals or a well planned out schedule which will help them manage expectations and reduce anxiety.
As a person with neurodiversity, when I’m planning a trip, especially someplace new, I need the opportunity to spend some time online and find the airport, city, hotel, etc., so I have at least some idea of what to expect. Does the airport have trains or shuttles to get between terminals, or is it walkable? Are there designated quiet areas? What does the area around where I’m staying offer? Is there the option of grocery shopping instead of going out to eat? There can be so many unknowns which can cause a lot of stress and anxiety when you’re neurodivergent.
Consider selecting destinations that are sensory-friendly and accommodating to neurodiverse individuals. A quick few moments with google and you may be surprised to discover that the travel industry is realizing they need to support individuals with neurodiversities and you may find some great options!
A recent trip I went on had a long layover due to flight delays and changes. I was exhausted by the time I arrived at the airport for a layover, so I slowly walked around the terminal hoping to find a quiet corner where I might be able to ground myself. We can do a lot of masking when we’re neurodivergent, perhaps even more so when traveling, and that, along with just being at a higher level of distress when traveling, is exhausting! I was pleasantly surprised to find a designated quiet area that included a dozen or so lounge chair type of seating that I didn’t know existed. So I will be checking out airports before I travel to locate that ahead of time.
When you’re navigating airports, train stations, or bus terminals, be there to support and guide your neurodivergent travel companion. If you can find a map of the airport or train station, that can be very helpful for a person with autism or ADHD. And if they’re like my autistic son, they’ll have everything memorized and know which restaurant to eat at!
Another idea is to contact the airline before flying, especially if there are specific needs. My son is a pilot, so I don’t need to prepare him, but for myself, I download calming music and audiobooks, and make sure I have earbuds to listen. I also pack a set of ear plugs when I don’t want to listen, but I need to drown out the noise. I pack an empty water bottle and my own snacks. I do have food allergies, but I also have my routines and habits with what I eat and I find it comforting to have the same snack with me as I would eat if I were home. I wear comfortable clothing and shoes, ones that are easy to take off at security, if necessary. Also consider the amount of luggage you are taking and if you can manage it while supporting someone with neurodivergence. Use an app on your phone for boarding passes so you don’t have to worry about losing them.
Please consider your accommodations if you have a neurodiverse person traveling with you! Are you going home for the holidays and it’s a packed house? You may want separate accommodations to provide for a break from the noise and crowd. Are you going to be in the city center? You may want to consider accommodations away from the noise, nighttime lights, and bustle of downtown and find something in the suburbs.
Look for accommodations that offer quiet rooms, sensory-friendly environments, or additional support services. Do the research and contact the hotel, the owner of the airbnb, or the family you will be staying with to make sure it’s a good fit for the neurodivergents in your life. On a recent trip to Newcastle, England to get my daughter settled for university, I found accommodations at a family owned hotel or inn and emailed them several times to ask different questions to make sure it would support my needs and to know what to expect. They were happy to reply and it helped me feel more comfortable going to a new place to stay. And of course I left them a great review!
I mentioned some things to pack for a flight, but even if you’re not flying, they would be useful. Pack the novel items, the essentials, and also remember to individualize it to meet the needs of the person with autism or ADHD. Here’s a list to get you started and remember to pack things they don’t do well managing without.
- Noise-canceling headphones
- Items to take advantage of when boredom sets in
- Sensory tools and “fidget spinners”
- Comfort items
Social Stories and Visual Supports:
Our neurodivergents thrive with visual supports, so plan ahead and it will help. Whether it’s a calendar, planner, or schedule, or a social story for your younger ones, it can make a big difference. If your child is supported by an SLP, you can ask them for social stories or you can also google and find some online.
If your traveler is a bit older, you can peruse websites together to look at airports, hotels, and city maps, etc. All of it will go a long way in calming the anxiety that they might feel.
Plan ahead and look for sensory-friendly activities at your travel destination. Look for local events and places that might be particularly accommodating to neurodiverse individuals. I like to look for parks and trails as I always find being in nature and walking very restorative and calming.
Although as a neurodivergent person I love routines and schedules, it’s important to have flexibility. Remember I talked about the exhaustion just above? We may need time for breaks, maybe a few hours, maybe an entire day dedicated to quiet and staying in. If an outing has us in sensory overload, even though we may have wanted to do it and liked it, we need time afterwards to recover and regulate ourselves again.
Remember your neurodivergent person may do better with specific communication styles, and if we’re overwhelmed and on sensory overload, we may only be capable of the bare minimum. Keep visuals handy to support communication and if your autistic or ADHD person starts to shut down, give them space to not communicate. If they tell you in a very abrupt manner that they don’t know where they want to eat or that they don’t know if they’re hungry, they may not be in a place where they can decide or know. And that’s okay. You know your neurodivergent person and you know if they need someone else to make decisions or that they may eat something if you put it in front of them.
Yes, there is a lot to consider when traveling with neurodiversity, but it can also be very rewarding and enjoyable. I’m actually writing this while at a hotel with my autistic son as we make our way home for the holidays. And yes, he has a plan for the layover regarding a restaurant.
Please reach out if you need support!